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The Weekly Anthropocene, May 24 2023
Offshore wind being good neighbors to marine life, a drop in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, low-carbon concrete, a traumatized orca starting a band of boat attackers, and more!
Offshore wind farms around the world are adopting fascinating new innovations to be “good neighbors” to wildlife.
Vineyard Wind, the under-construction 800 MW offshore wind farm off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts, will be using American-made bubble curtain technology to minimize undersea noise and avoid disruption to wildlife when it installs its turbines’ “monopile” foundations. This will be the first time an American company provides bubble curtain technology to an American offshore wind farm, a heartening sign for the development of the domestic offshore wind industry. Vineyard Wind will feature 63 turbines and generate enough clean electricity for 400,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts, and it should start producing power by the end of 2023!
During the construction of the Vesterhav North wind farm off the coast of Denmark, a local pod of dolphins has continued their activities undisturbed thanks to a “hydro sound damper system” (similar to a bubble curtain, but a physical wall instead of bubbles) masking the noise of the foundations being installed. Monitoring shows that the dolphins have not moved or changed their behavior. Vesterhav North and its twin project Vesterhav South will together be made up of 41 turbines and produce 344 megawatts of power, enough for 380,000 Danish households, and should be online before the end of 2023!
The Netherlands halted turbine rotation at their Egmond aan Zee and Borssele offshore wind farms for four hours on May 13th, a time that scientists had predicted would be a peak moment for the spring bird migrations across the North Sea. This pilot program to help ensure the safety of migrating birds was a worldwide first, and it’s set to grow quickly. By the fall migration, these temporary shutdowns during peak migrations periods might be the standard, and also applicable to future wind farms!
These extra efforts to harmonize offshore wind with local ecosystems are in addition to offshore wind’s normal ecosystem benefits: they have been widely found to act as “artificial reefs” providing new habitat to sea creatures, and have often attracted schools of fish!
New satellite data has given the world an update on threats to the Amazon Rainforest, and some progress has been made. Deforestation in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon in January-April 2023 was 40% lower than in the previous year, with 1,173 square kilometers of land cleared in the Brazilian Amazon so far compared to over 1,968 km² in January-April 2022. Some months showed even more improvement, with 328.71 km² deforested in April 2023, 68% lower than the record-high 1,026 km² in April 2022. (For context, Washington D.C. has an area of 177 square kilometers, so this is still a lot of deforestation going on, but also much less than before).
This is an encouraging sign for the still-relatively-new administration of Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who took office in January 2023, replacing the actively pro-illegal logging Jair Bolsonaro. (See previous The Weekly Anthropocene coverage). Lula has already restarted the Amazon Fund (international donors paying for forest protection), recognized several Indigenous lands (a time-tested effective conservation strategy), and giving more support to Ibama, the Brazilian environmental agency, including allowing journalists on their anti-logging raids.
On May 17, 2023, startup CarbonBuilt began commercial production of low-carbon concrete (pictured) at a locally owned masonry factory in Childersburg, Alabama. Heating standard limestone-and-clay Portland cement (a key ingredient in concrete) emits lots of carbon dioxide: the global cement industry accounts for a whopping 7 to 8% of humanity’s CO2 emissions. CarbonBuilt makes cement with calcium-rich industrial waste instead of limestone, then pumps CO2 into the chamber, trapping carbon in the cement instead of releasing it. Their currently operating Alabama facility gets carbon dioxide from burning forestry waste, but an earlier-stage CarbonBuilt project in Flagstaff, Arizona will go even further. There, they’re working to make cement from carbon dioxide drawn down from the atmosphere with Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology, sequestering atmospheric carbon and making money at the same time. The Arizona project should start production in 2024, and there are 800 or so carbon-intensive concrete plants in America-plenty of room for this awesome technology to grow!
Colorado has passed a far-reaching new law adding more state support for clean energy purchases, designed as a complement to the federal Inflation Reduction Act. Colorado now has state-level tax credits signed into law ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 for qualifying EVs, $500 to $3,000 for heat pumps, and $800 for e-bikes (this is also America’s first state-run rebate for e-bikes!). As Heatmap News pointed out, this means that Coloradans can now buy a brand-new Chevy Bolt (normally starting at $26,500) for $15,000, applying both Inflation Reduction Act and new Colorado-only tax credits! Beyond consumer-focused measures, Colorado is also trying to lure new industries, with a tax credit for the production of lower-carbon jet fuels and the use of (strictly-defined) clean, produced-with-renewable-electricity hydrogen in hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation.
As climate change-driven extreme weather strains the national grid, clean energy is stepping up to keep the lights on, with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation writing that “Increased, rapid deployment of wind, solar and batteries have made a positive impact [to grid reliability].”
Thanks to Biden Administration prioritization of this critical decarbonization infrastructure, the United States has greenlit another clean energy transmission line. The SunZia line will carry wind energy from central New Mexico about 520 miles to serve the consumers of Arizona and Southern California! As more wind power is generated in the evening, this will nicely complement daytime-skewed Southwest solar generation, and help move forward towards a completely clean grid.
Electric school buses are taking off across the United States. Per Canary Media, the US now has over 5,600 electric school buses “ordered, delivered, put in operation or funded,” amounting to 1% of the national school bus fleet, and many more are on the way as EV bus manufacturing, federal funding, and state-level support all continue to grow.
Solar services company Terabase Energy has announced it will be building a factory in Woodland, California, to build its “Terafab” systems, robots working with automated assembly lines to install commercial solar panels at large scales with no need for humans on the ground. Terafab robots have already built 10 megawatts of solar at a test in Texas, and will be commercially available in Q3 2023! Here’s hoping for more widespread solar installation robots: this should really help with labor shortages in the clean energy industry.
The IRS issued initial guidance for which projects will qualify for the Inflation Reduction Act’s 10% tax credit for using “domestic content” materials (i.e., made in the US). To qualify, renewable energy projects must use 100% US-made iron and steel, 100% US-made steel solar panel racking, 40% US-made installed equipment for solar and land-based wind projects (this includes the solar panels and turbines themselves), and 20% US-made installed equipment for offshore wind. Domestic content requirements will rise over time. This seems to strike a good balance between rapid decarbonization and rebuilding US green manufacturing supply chains!
The US Department of Agriculture will begin disbursing $10.7 billion in Inflation Reduction Act money for two new programs to fund clean energy projects in rural American communities. Rural electric cooperatives, renewable energy companies, and utilities (including municipal and Tribal utilities) will be eligible to apply for the funds. In the US, rural electric cooperatives provide electricity to 42 million people, so this is a big boost to both decarbonization and providing rural Americans with cheap clean power. Notably, this is also the largest single federal investment in rural electrification since FDR’s Rural Electrification Act in 1936!
A surprising Supreme Court ruling expanded states’ rights to impose new ethics-based restrictions on industries. In National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority decided on May 11, 2023 to uphold the legality of California’s Proposition 12, which banned the sale of pork made from pigs kept in inhumanely small “gestation crates.” As California is a big market, this will likely incentivize all American pork companies to give their pigs more space. The pork industry had claimed that Proposition 12 therefore violated the Constitution’s semi-theoretical “dormant commerce clause,” a legal reading of the Commerce Clause that would limit states’ ability to pass laws that harm other states’ commerce. (In this case, Iowa’s pork industry). However, the Supreme Court decision in favor of California substantially weakened the dormant commerce clause idea, opening the door for similar far-reaching state laws on other issues. This is good news for the fight against climate change as well as animal welfare, as the dormant commerce clause had already been invoked in previous attempts to attack state-level fuel economy standards and coal export bans. States now have stronger legal grounds to pass new laws restricting the fossil fuel industry, as well as the moral horror of industrial slaughterhouses.
Straits of Gibraltar
In a truly wild story, a pod of orcas ranging near the Straits of Gibraltar have attacked many small sailboats and sunk three. There have been hundreds of reports of orcas approaching and/or attacking sailboats off the Iberian and Moroccan coast (a risky and abnormal behavior for the species) starting in 2020, with the orcas generally going straight for the rudder and proceeding to bite, bend, or break it. On May 4, 2023 a sailing yacht was sunk by three orcas in the Straits of Gibraltar, their third successful sinking. (The crew was rescued by the coast guard, and the orcas did not appear to target humans. No humans have been harmed by the orcas in any of the ship attacks).
A 2022 study described this fascinating phenomenon as “an endangered subpopulation showing a disruptive behavior.” Although orcas inhabit all the world’s oceans and don’t seem to be at imminent risk of extinction globally, the Iberian subpopulation carrying out these attacks in critically endangered, with only 39 left as of a census in 2011. Local scientists believe that this behavior started with a female known as “White Gladis” who likely suffered extreme pain associated with boats, possibly during an encounter with illegal fishers. White Gladis has since taught boat-attacking techniques to her entire pod, and it appears to have now become part of their group culture, as a mother orca was observed apparently teaching her calf how to disable a boat’s rudder.
The orcas’ true motives will likely remain unknowable, but it is really easy to anthropomorphize this one! Orcas are highly intelligent, social, big-brained animals, and they’re acting much as we might expect humans to act if aliens were cruising around, harvesting our food, and occasionally killing people (intentionally or otherwise). This writer has always been puzzled by the sci-fi trope of “are we alone?”; we are definitely not alone, with dozens of highly intelligent species on this planet with us already. Perhaps someday we’ll get to the point where we can share it with them peacefully.
"That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat.”
And contrary to right-wing media attacks, the recent spate of whale deaths along the U.S. East Coast are clearly due to ship strikes in high-traffic shipping lanes, not the still-barely-there-yet offshore wind industry.
That is a wild sentence to have written! What a world we live in.